in which the death of a rock legend makes me think about how our world has changed

When this came out, I hung the cover on my bedroom wall. 
Sharing memories of David Bowie, as so many of us were after his too-early death this week, led me to think a lot about the world I lived in when I was a big Bowie fan.

My world then

I saw Bowie in concert in 1976, after the "Station to Station" album came out. I was a few months shy of my 15th birthday.

I had a picture of him on my wall, a magazine cover with a green background. I had assumed it was the cover of Time, but a Google image search quickly revealed it was People. No one in my family read People, which means I bought the magazine for the Bowie story and photos.

Although I can't remember anything specific, I know I would have cut out, read, and saved anything about the new album and the tour from Rolling Stone (still an actual rock music magazine), The New York Times, and Time, because I subscribed to RS and my parents subscribed to the others.

In those days, we searched for images and stories about our musical loves, and when we found them, we pounced on and devoured them. They were very finite, and we hoarded everything we could find.

There were a few opportunities to see bands play on TV, and if you were into music, you never missed them. You stayed up for "Don Kirshner," as we called it, or woke up with Soul Train, if that was your music. (I did both.) When "Saturday Night Live" came on the scene, the best thing about it was another opportunity to see bands play.

Sometimes a concert would be broadcast on TV to promote a tour. I have a vivid memory of watching Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review on a small black-and-white set in my parents' bedroom, in self-imposed exile from the colour set that my parents were watching in the den, so I could drink in every detail of the show without annoying comments.

Even more exciting was footage of old concerts and TV appearances. We didn't call them videos: they were footage. I had an adult friend who had a stockpile of rock on film. My friends and I would plead with him to show us The Who smashing their instruments, or something rare like a clip from the Rolling Stones' "Cocksucker Blues".

Concerts were often broadcast on the radio. We would all tune in to the King Biscuit Flower Hour to hear past concerts, or even better, a live concert simulcast on the radio. Allan tells me that the Bowie show previous to the one I attended was broadcast live. Although I don't remember it, I'm certain I was listening.

It's difficult to explain what it felt like, compared to our present time, when a concert is uploaded for file-sharing an hour after it ends, and cell-phone videos are instantly posted to YouTube, and if you want to see what someone looks like, you simply type their name and hit enter. There was always a kind of hunger for more, and also a kind of mystery.

Another thing we have now: the almost instant ability to connect with other fans. In those days, fans of any given band were almost like a secret society. Members recognized each other by lyrics written on notebooks and t-shirts worn the day after the concert, something like a secret handshake.

This is not nostalgia! I don't think for one moment that life was better because I couldn't Google images of David Bowie. It was just very different.

The concert

It was 1976. A friend's parents bought her three tickets to the David Bowie concert for her 16th birthday, and I was a lucky tag-along.*

It was the second rock show I had ever attended, and the first that my parents knew about. I had to ask their permission to go, and - even though the friend's parents would be driving us there and picking us up - they weren't keen. My older sister intervened on my behalf, and got them to say yes.

In the lead-up to the show, we read, watched, and listened to everything about Bowie and the tour that we could get our hands on. We skipped school to see "The Man Who Fell to Earth" the day it opened, and saw it three times that week. We talked about the movie constantly. (I don't remember if the film was before or after the concert.)

The scene outside Madison Square Garden was our warm-up act. There were men in drag, people of every gender in Bowie-inspired makeup, and many people dressed in imitation of Bowie's current persona. In those days, a rock show was like an open-air market for illegal drugs. We had smuggled joints on our person, wondering if we'd be able to smoke at the show.

I believe there was no actual warm-up act, although I can't swear to it. Bowie designed and controlled his shows very tightly, so I doubt he would have a warm-up band sullying the spectacle. But opening acts - billed as "special guests" - were typical in those days, so perhaps there was.

The lights went out, and all of Madison Square Garden became a cloud of pot smoke. My friends and I looked at each other in joy and wonder.

A screen was lowered in front of the stage, and suddenly we were seeing silent, surreal, black-and-white images. It was - I later learned - "Un Chien Andalou", the famous short film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. Chances are good that few people in the audience had seen the film before. Another vivid memory: the very audible gasp of a crowd of 20,000 when an eyeball appears to be sliced with a razor blade.

The film ended, the screen rose, a white spotlight appeared, and there he was: the Thin White Duke. He was beautiful. He was intense. He owned your attention. I was a mile away, and it felt as if he was singing to me. Yes, I was 14 years old, and not exactly a critical audience. But the audience was rapt. He was absolutely captivating.

Incidentally, I never asked permission to attend a concert again. I just went. At some point I must have needed permission to go only with friends, without an adult, but I don't remember this being controversial. I was the youngest in my family, and the only child still living home. My father's health (mental and physical) was poor, my parents' marriage was disintegrating, and they were too tired or distracted to police me. This was sad, but it had its advantages.

* I would go on to have a strange love-hate relationship with this person, who was also my partner in all of my illegal activity. But we were both still innocent of that tangled mess.


allan said...

Nice write-up!

I could not find any 1976 tour footage (which seems odd), though there is a film of a rehearsal in Vancouver, where the tour began.

Further investigation reveals that the Nassau show three nights before yours was not broadcast live. It was recorded for King Biscuit (and broadcast later). That whole show has been officially released as part of a deluxe Station To Station.

West End Bob said...

Great account of your first concert, laura k - Thanx!

My one and only Bowie concert was in December of 1974 @ The Omni in Atlanta, GA for his Diamond Dogs tour. I didn't have to ask my parent's permission as I was - ahem! - quite a few years older than your 14 years, heh.

To this day, it ranks as the best live show I've ever seen.

Gonna miss the man's unmatched creativity . . . .

laura k said...

Oh man, I would have loved to see the Diamond Dogs tour! That's my favourite era of his. And apparently you are older than me! :)

One note: it was my second concert. Only the first I asked permission for. My first was the Stones in 1975, the first of many times I would see them.

West End Bob said...

Check this out, laura k:


Pretty cool that Mr. Jones now has his own constellation . . . .

impudent strumpet said...

Whoa, that picture is very nice to look at indeed! #leastimportantthing

laura k said...

Whoa, that picture is very nice to look at indeed!


Not for nothing did it make The Wall.

Unknown said...

Enjoyed the story. I was 16 and in my junior year of high school at that time and my experiences attending rock concerts were pretty close to what you've written here. True to what you've written I also recall most info about music and musical artists being scant and became known largely though word of mouth, friend to friend, as it were. Bowie was an integral part of the soundtrack of my life back then, I vividly remember that King Biscuit Bowie Thin White Duke/Station To Station tour broadcast. I listened to that KBFH broadcast while I was working my first "real" job with a paycheck, dishwashing/food prep/kitchen help at a small country club Northeast of Philadelphia for minimum wage.

Bowie had quite a following in Philly, going back to the Tower Theatre shows for the Ziggy Stardust album, that resulted in the 'David Live' triple album so Bowie's music and the buzz about him was quite ubiquitous around Philly at the time, that particular tour stop being highly promoted and anticipated. A co-worker and classmate raved after attending a show at the Philly Spectrum during that tour in March, approximately two weeks before the MSG, NYC concert you wrote about. My fellow Bowie fan/friend and I were glued to the radio for the King Biscuit broadcast as he described the visual and experiential aspects of the shows that corresponded to the songs and I don't recall being happier to have worked a Friday night shift.

I had some legitimate envy for anyone who got to see one of those early-to-mid-seventies Bowie shows. I didn't get my chance to see Bowie live until the Serious Moonlight tour at the Spectrum and went three out of four nights. One of those nights, coincidentally my 24th birthday, coincided with the filming of a rock video at the show for the encore song 'Modern Love.' Had to scalp a ticket that night after seeing the opening show the previous night after deciding to go on the spur of the moment with a van load of friends as they were getting ready to depart for the show. (as an aside, I employed the same m.o. to attend a Who concert at Shea Stadium the previous October of 1982, The Clash opened. Tickets were $25 on their face but we managed to score a couple of general admission tickets with only forty bucks and a bottle of Jack Daniels but that's another story. We had a blast even though it rained a little, btw you New Yorkers sure know how to do concerts. :^) )

I ended up separated from my friends but with a floor seat beneath a large crescent moon prop hanging from the ceiling that later opened to release small mylar floating moon balloons. It's a fond memory of a very good time that is reinforced every time I see it on the video, which is still played on VH-1 Classic and was played in heavy rotation on Bowie's last birthday and after he passed. Thanks for a great read and for sharing some of your remembrances of Bowie. I very much appreciate it and am glad I surfed on in to your site.